India's Great Divide

  • Share
  • Read Later


Surveying the sunset over Bombay's southern coastline from the calm of his palatial first-floor office, police joint commissioner Ahmad Javed could scarcely look less like an outsider. His uniform is stiff with starch, his shoes impeccably shined, and when the 45-year-old smoothes his neatly clipped moustache, he does so with perfectly manicured fingers. On his polished wood desk, an In tray bulges with the responsibilities of the second-most-senior policeman in India's biggest metropolis; meanwhile, outside a nervous line of saluting adjutants waits for signatures, permissions and orders in triplicate. When Javed speaks, it is with the erudite polish and faintly Victorian manner of India's finest private school, St. Stephen's College in New Delhi. The consummate insider, Javed is a man whose instincts and hopes—whose entire being—are governed by the system he serves. "We have a saying in the service," he says. "Once you don your khakis, they become your religion."

Looking down at the same shoreline from the top floor of a nearby hotel, 44-year-old "Umar" is reflecting on a life spent almost entirely outside the Indian mainstream. Affable, neatly bearded and smartly dressed, Umar (a pseudonym given to him by TIME) holds the senior rank of ansar, or guide, in India's loosely knit Muslim militant movement. In that capacity, he told Time, he has played a central role in a string of deadly bomb blasts that have rocked Bombay in the past eight months. Just last week, a bus was blown apart as it drove through eastern Bombay, killing three people and injuring 42. The police blame the attack on Umar's organization, an unnamed fundamentalist group made up primarily of former members of the outlawed Student Islamic Movement of India (SIMI).

Umar and Javed, both Indian Muslims, began their careers simultaneously in the mid-'70s. But they could hardly have chosen more different paths. While the policeman was taking his civil-service exams, Umar was being admitted as a full-time activist in SIMI, a fundamentalist group formed in the late 1970s and banned by New Delhi after 9/11. Umar spends his life on the run, changing his appearance, identity and address every few months. But as a member of the ultra-orthodox Al-e-Hadeez Sunni sect, he maintains a semblance of a traditional Muslim family life with a wife and two children at a house in northern India. For most of his 28 years' service as an Indian jihadi, Umar's specialty has been as a facilitator for foreign Islamic guerrillas from Pakistan, Afghanistan and even western China, providing them with safe houses, weapons and identities. (Among those he helped, claims Umar, were Muslim militants who attacked the Indian Parliament in New Delhi on Dec. 13, 2001, killing 14 people.) Like Javed, Umar defines himself through his work. But as befits the man at the top of Javed's most wanted list, in every other respect he is the policeman's antithesis. "This country doesn't work for Muslims any more," he says. "You can't get a proper education. You can't get a job. You're not even safe."

Here we have two Indian Muslims with two very different experiences of their homeland. But the truth is that Javed and Umar share a fundamental burden: in the eyes of many Hindus, no Muslim can ever truly belong in India. The origins of this antagonism are centuries old. In essence, hard-line Hindus regard as a national humiliation the Islamic influence that pervades India's history, starting with the Mughal Renaissance in the 16th century, continuing with the birth of Islamic fundamentalism in Asia at Deoband in northern India in the 1860s (the same creed followed by the Taliban) and enduring even today in India's national symbol, the Mughal mausoleum of the Taj Mahal. This distrust of Islam has only increased since independence in 1947: modern India was founded in the Muslim-Hindu bloodletting of partition of the subcontinent, in which a million people died, and since then tensions have boiled over into three wars against Islamic neighbor Pakistan. Today, much of the religious tension in the region stems from India's rule over Muslim-dominated Kashmir in the face of strident Pakistani opposition. The war on terror and the 1998 election of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on a Hindu-nationalist agenda, which focused debate on physically undoing the Mughal invasion by razing mosques built over Hindu temples, have lent a veil of legitimacy to India's lurking anti-Muslim prejudice. "Muslims are a despised minority, disliked by a large section of the majority," wrote Muslim commentator Firoz Bakht Ahmed in the Hindu newspaper last month.

Indian Muslims do have their high achievers: President Abdul Kalam; Wipro chairman and India's richest man, Azim Premji, and a host of Bollywood stars (Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan, Salman Khan, Saif Ali Khan). But for every President or Muslim tech entrepreneur or movie star or policeman, there are 1,000 others with tales of discrimination in the workplace or the education system, harassment by wayward police officers or segregation into ghettos by Hindu landlords. Whatever the causes, there is no disputing the fact that Indian Muslims today are less educated, poorer and live shorter, less secure and less healthy lives than their Hindu counterparts. Census figures paint a bleak picture of their plight. In rural India, 29% of Muslims earn less than $6 a month, compared with 26% of Hindus; in the cities (where a third of all Muslims live) the gap rises to 40% vs. 22%. Some 13% of India's population is Muslim, yet Muslims account for just 3% of government employees, and an even smaller percentage are employed by private Hindu businesses. Meanwhile, in the cities, 30% of Muslims are illiterate, vs. 19% of Hindus. Nor are any of these indices improving.

India's Muslims are also far more likely than Hindus to be victims of violent attacks. In all the communal riots since independence, official police records reveal that three-quarters of the lives lost and properties destroyed were Muslim, a figure that climbed to 85% during last year's riots in Gujarat. The Gujarat authorities even went so far as to price Muslim lives below those of Hindus, offering $2,050 in state compensation for Muslims killed but double that for the riots' 58 Hindu victims. "There is often a tendency in India to treat Muslims as them rather than us," says K.C. Tyagi, former leader of the moderate Hindu Samajwadi Party. "And this tendency does have terrible manifestations. Even today, by and large, Muslims have not been admitted to what we call the Indian mainstream." The portion of the population affected by this systemic discrimination is staggering: India's Muslim "minority" numbers 150 million people (vs. 850 million Hindus)—after Indonesia, the second-largest Islamic community in the world.





 

It's little wonder that these inequalities have fueled a profound sense of alienation and resentment among many Muslims. In their eyes, what happened in Gujarat to people like Zaheera Sheikh was a brutal, watershed illustration of just how inhospitable India has become to Muslims. As Hindu mobs rampaged across the state in an orgy of violence that was to cost 2,000 Muslim lives, Sheikh hid on a rooftop in her hometown of Baroda, Gujarat, and watched a crowd of 100 pelting her family's home and attached bakery with bricks and bags of gasoline. After an hour of this, she recalls, a Hindu police sergeant addressed the mob: "He said, 'You have to finish this tonight, to finish everyone off. This has to be over with by the morning.' And then he got back into his jeep and left."

Nine people were burned alive or clubbed to death at the Sheikh family's house and bakery that night, including her uncle Kauser Ali and her sister Sabira, as well as three Muslim neighbors and their four children who believed they would be safe inside the Sheikhs' concrete walls. When the rioters coaxed the survivors down from the roof the following morning with promises of safety, Sheikh and the others agreed. But the mob killed two Muslim men as they ran away and beat three Hindu bakery workers to the ground before disemboweling them, piling wood on top of them and setting them alight.

Sheikh's experience of what University of Washington political scientist Paul Brass calls militant Hindus' "institutionalized riot systems" was all too common in Gujarat. But it is her tale of what followed that is now forcing the nation to examine how deeply anti-Muslim prejudice permeates the state. In the riots' aftermath, what set Sheikh apart from other victims was her steadfast refusal to recant her police statement identifying her attackers. "My brother received threats on his mobile phone from politicians. They would say, 'Do you value your life? Your family's life? Tell your sister to change her testimony or we'll kill you all.'" But Sheikh refused, exhorting her brother to remember the sight of their sister Sabira perishing in the flames. Finally, on May 17, Sheikh's day in court came.

When she arrived at the courthouse steps, Sheikh says, local BJP leader Madhu Srivastava intercepted her and said "you are not going to get justice." In addition, she claims, "He asked me, 'Is your life or the lives of your family not precious to you?'" (Confronted with Sheikh's allegations, Srivastava told TIME, "These Muslim women are lying. I have never threatened them. They have entered into a conspiracy with [the opposition] Congress Party to defame me and the nationalistic BJP. I am the most popular leader in my constituency. Otherwise I would not have been elected. The Congress [Party] is provoking Muslims to make false statements for its own political gains.")

As Sheikh recalls it, the courtroom was packed with militant Hindus, staring at her and making threatening gestures. At this last moment, Sheikh's nerve failed her. She told prosecutor Raghuvir Pandya that she hadn't been able to see her attackers in the dark and smoke. Pandya, a BJP member who Sheikh says had not met his star witness before her court appearance, questioned her briefly, then let her go. "I had two choices: to speak for my dead relatives or to keep quiet for my living ones," she says. "I chose the latter." She was one of 41 witnesses who had changed their statements; soon afterwards, the case collapsed and all 21 accused walked free.

Moreover, Sheikh's case is not even particularly unusual. Hindu riots in India over the past two decades have cost the lives of more than 6,000 people, yet only a handful of Hindus have been convicted. Justice is even rarer in a state where some public prosecutors owe their jobs to the BJP's hard-line icon Narendra Modi, who did little to control the riots and was re-elected last December on a wave of Hindu nationalism, and where Pravin Togadia, the extremist general secretary of the BJP-allied Vishwa Hindu Parishad, has his main support base. (Togadia once informed TIME that a third of Indian Muslims were "jihadis" and that all jihadis—50 million people, by his math—should be "executed.") Indeed, an indication of which way the courts are leaning in three other Gujarat massacre cases—in which the death tolls were 89, 42 and 38—can be found in the release on bail of all but 10 of the 114 alleged murderers, rapists and arsonists.

Nonetheless, Sheikh says she retains her faith in the Indian justice system and in the humanity of most Hindus. "I don't believe Hindus everywhere are like this," she says, mentioning several Hindu friends and neighbors and even policemen who encouraged her to go to court. "If there's a divide here, it is between those who want to see justice done and those who don't."

But for terrorist Umar, Gujarat and the unabashed prejudice that followed was a breaking point. "If the government continues on this path, we will go to any extreme," he warns. "As they reach their peak, so will we."





 

Indian politicians blamed Pakistan for last Monday's Bombay bus explosion that killed 3 and injured 42 (bringing the toll from five blasts since December to 17 dead and hundreds injured). But the police in Bombay have little doubt that Umar's organization was the real culprit. Javed notes that the attack occurred in Ghatkopar, an area of eastern Bombay that's home to many migrant Gujaratis and that was also the place where Umar initiated his Bombay bombing campaign on Dec. 2, when an almost identical bus bomb killed two and hurt 28 others. Issuing a high alert across the city last week , Javed said the "element of continuity" from the previous blasts was undeniable. A senior officer from India's intelligence service, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), confirms that a hard core of fundamentalists drawn from SIMI's ranks has switched from backroom support to frontline terror in the past few months; he also says they were responsible for the assassination of former Gujarat home minister Haren Pandya on March 26. The officer from raw adds, "Let's not have any doubts as to what caused this [Muslim backlash]. If I was a Muslim and people from my community were mowed down like they were in Gujarat, do you think I would stand by and do nothing?"

Umar, for one, has no intention of standing by and doing nothing. "We will continue," he vows. "There is no limit on our actions ... Even to kill children is good—you stop the generation there, at the beginning."

For law enforcers like Javed, the worry is not so much the ruthless fury of an extremist like Umar as the extent to which such rage has spread within more respectable parts of the Muslim community. When Bombay suffered a series of Islamist bomb attacks in 1993, they were carried out by the city's Muslim-dominated underworld, men who had long departed the mainstream and for whom violence was already a way of life. But Javed's right-hand man, deputy police commissioner (and Hindu) Pradip Sawant, is finding today that even some whom he'd expect to be India's least marginalized Muslims are heeding the call to jihad. "Of the 21 we've caught and charged [over the recent Bombay bombings]," says Sawant, "two are doctors, six are computer specialists and two or three more are university graduates in other disciplines." Outside Bombay, too, the police have broken up terrorist cells in places like Bangalore, Kerala and New Delhi over the past six months and have been shocked to find that a high proportion of cell members were university graduates and professionals. "It is a matter of serious concern," says Javed, "when people who are so qualified choose a path which means throwing everything away. It tells us that there is a new sort of thinking circulating in the community."

That new thinking was evident when Javed's men descended upon the prosperous Muslim suburb of Borivili in April to arrest former SIMI national head Saqib Nachan, 44, as the suspected ground commander for the Bombay bombings. Javed's officers were forced to withdraw by a crowd of 300 local residents who assembled outside their stucco mansions and barred the way. Later, after Nachan surrendered and confessed his role as a terrorist commander, the police announced the discovery of two AK-56s, four pistols, four revolvers and 250 homemade bombs hidden in the village well. Nasir Mullah, whose 26-year-old bank-manager son is a former SIMI member and was also arrested, says the weapons were to protect Borivili from a Hindu-dominated police force that has since been censured in an official state report for conducting "ad hoc arrests of the innocent, torture and forced confessions" there. "Nachan and the other SIMI people are role models here," says the 55-year-old timber trader. "People need to defend themselves."

Although he, too, is angry about Gujarat, Javed refuses to concede any common bond with Umar. To Javed, there is no contradiction between his dismay over Gujarat and his job, which requires him to hunt down self-styled Muslim avengers. "There's a world of difference between being upset by Gujarat and being a committed militant," he says. Wrath is not the only emotion sweeping India's Muslim community, he adds. Progressive Muslims like Javed are increasingly expressing alarm at the dangers of radicalization among both Hindus and Muslims. And in the past year, a growing number of such moderates have called for Muslims to modernize and show the flexibility needed to begin bridging India's bitter division. In her steadfast refusal to see Hindus as the enemy, Sheikh personifies this progressive outlook. "I just don't understand these old hatreds," she says. "I could never live like that."

But with the rhetoric of intolerance likely to drown out moderation in the run-up to a general election as little as six months away, Javed and his officers see more bloodshed coming. "I fear this is only the beginning," says deputy commissioner Sawant. Indeed, flushed with success, Umar has no intention of renouncing his terror campaign. "We regret nothing," he says. "We enjoy this work."

Javed, meanwhile, scans the cityscape's middle distance, as if for signs of his quarry. "We will have more strife, and the situation will get more difficult," he predicts. He pauses. "But there is hope for Muslims in India. There has to be. If Muslims lose hope, then what?" Then Umar and his Hindu enemies will have won.